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Network Rail breaks new ground in British flight

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An air operations team working for Network Rail believes it has made the longest flight in Britain using a Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) drone.

A proof-of-concept flight saw the drone make a trip of 25 kilometres over dry land. It travelled from Bicester along the East West Railway, the culmination of 18 months’ preparation.

A drone’s eye view of work on the East West railway.

The infrastructure owner and operator says it is a significant step forward in terms of how drones can be used to inspect the railway safely, quickly and cost-effectively.

Drones and helicopters have long been used by Network Rail to identify faults on the railway. They are used to help predict and prevent failures, while also representing a safer form of maintenance by limiting the number of manual inspections that need to be carried out by foot.

Controlling the drone during flight.

Up until now, drones were only ever flown above the railway when they were in clear sight of the operator, and usually only for four or five kilometres at a time. While this can still be a helpful tool to inspect Britain’s rail infrastructure, it requires the team involved to set up multiple times at different locations. The ability to fly a BVLOS drone enables the air operations team to inspect the railway over a much larger area while saving valuable time and costs.

Rikke Carmichael, Network Rail.

Network Rail’s head of air operations, Rikke Carmichael, said: “While flying beyond visual line of sight will ultimately provide us with much greater capability, it is worth emphasising that this was a proof-of-concept flight, and that a shift to using BVLOS as business as usual will take some time.

“We’ll now turn our attention to agreeing a strategy for using drones both VLOS and BVLOS, after which we will want to engage with industry for the next exciting phase of BVLOS becoming another routine service the Air Ops team provides the business.”

A Network Rail helicopter flew alongside the drone to see if the two could work together, and whether their respective systems recognised each other. It was proved that they did work effectively together. Data captured by the helicopter will be used to create a ‘digital twin’ of the railway that was flown over.

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